American Hubris on the UK and Northern Ireland

This morning’s Financial Times (17 March 2021) notes that the ‘US fires warning shot at Johnson on Northern Ireland’. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to hold St. Patrick’s day talks with Irish premier Micheál Martin. President Biden reminds the world that he is Irish and will oppose any US-UK trade deal unless UK negotiations with the EU uphold terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. 

I am an American, and generally support President Biden, who has had remarkable accomplishments in his early days in office. But I have lived and worked in the UK, and England specifically, since 2002. I have long warned my colleagues in Britain – even though they already know this – that when Americans come to the UK, they start giving advice the moment they get off the plane. Joe Biden has not even gotten off a plane and – even before he was elected – has been giving advice or one might say orders to the UK on how to resolve trade issues with the EU. 

Puck’s “The Bull in the China Shop” 1898

There is something endearing about American hubris to think they can advise nations on matters on which they know far too little. I’ve yet to hear any responsible voice in the UK opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the complexity of the relationships between multiple stakeholders in the UK, and the nation of Northern Island and other nations and regions of the UK, and the EU and its member states, and Ireland in particular, are seriously difficult to resolve. For any US public official to make such facile statements that specifically threaten the UK is simply foolish. 

President Biden and the US State Department need to be a bit more modest, better informed and more balanced before weighing in on this issue. Joe Biden may think he is Irish, but is acting like a proverbial bull in a china shop. Could he ask what the US can do to help ensure that these negotiations are resolved in a way that is fair – if not a win-win – to all parties and preserves the peace agreement? 

Addendum

Press coverage following President Biden’s meeting with Ireland’s PM suggested that the US took a more balanced approach, arguing that “the UK and the EU must ‘move forward with a positive relationship’ on the Northern Irish protocol” (Williams, A., and Noonan, L., ‘Irish Premier Tells Biden EU and UK Must Back Good Friday Pact’, Financial Times, 18 March 2021: 4). This sounds like a more modest request.

Afterword

Later, coverage of President Biden’s administration seemed to have thrown gasoline on the fires in Northern Ireland by furthering the impression that ‘the Irish’ Biden and events were favouring the nationalists v the unionists. Later the administration said they ‘join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.’ My hope is they keep that message front and centre and stop interfering with a situation they do not seem to understand. Do no harm.

The Aftermath of Scottish Vote on Independence

Most of the handwringing over how the UK government can deal with the aftermath of the Scottish voting results seems unnecessary, perhaps done simply as a hook for news stories. The high share of the vote for independence was expected for years as there was a clear sense of the strength of national identities, particularly in Scotland, and the strong sentiment for the devolution of some responsibilities. As a result, many government and regulatory agencies have been hard at work on creative ways to better capture and reflect these sentiments.

For example, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) – the UK parallel to the FCC – created a Nations Committee several years ago. It brings together representatives of the devolved nations and England to discuss communication and regulatory issues in order to discover and react to different national perspectives on issues. As you can see from reading the blog of the Advisory Committees for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, called ‘Advice to Ofcom‘, these national issues are most often unifying. For example, nations such as Scotland have great concern for rural access to communication services, but discussion reveals that this concern is very much shared with the other nations, including England. Similarly, England has been concerned over how communication services, such as broadcasting, reflect the cultural diversity of England’s cities, with London being at the extreme, but discussion leads to the realization that this is an issue for cities across the UK.

In such ways, national perspectives are being built into some governmental and regulatory processes in ways that are likely to have very positive outcomes. The government is not being caught off guard, from my perspective. The mechanisms are not like the US federal system, so they might seem confusing to Americans, but they are developing incrementally in ways that are compatible with the pragmatic and pluralist traditions of the UK and Northern Ireland. Progress will not be easy, but it has been an evolving project. And the resulting debate can be fruitful for the UK as a whole.

The Nations of the UK and Northern Ireland
The Nations of the UK and Northern Ireland